Not every great writer is a great human being. We expect the people who touch our souls with their prose to be as wonderful as their words but sadly, that isn’t always the case. There are some writers whose work I admire, that I wouldn’t want within a mile of me, alive or dead. On the other hand, I wish I could have met the Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s biography of that name. Seldom has literary genius been paired with such a decent, gentle spirit.
When Bosie’s father (the Marquess of Queensberry, famous for his boxing rules) described Oscar as “posing as a somdomite [sic]” Bosie insisted Oscar should sue for libel. Other friends of Oscar argued a lawsuit would be disastrous since the statement was basically true, but Bosie insisted. So, Oscar “took to the law” and Bosie’s father proved his point with the testimony of some male prostitutes. The legal bills took all of Oscar’s earnings and the scandal meant no one would produce his plays. Society’s support for him disappeared. The transcript of Oscar’s civil suit became evidence in a criminal case against him. The conviction cost Oscar his family, his health and two years of his freedom. While Oscar served time in prison, Bosie traveled through Europe.
Ellmann’s biography captures the personal and professional dedication that abided in Oscar Wilde’s life even after his release from prison. He and Bosie were reunited for a short time but the pressures that undermined their relationship before, undermined it again. The banished and ruined genius moved to Paris and wrote what he could, correcting copies of his earlier plays and publishing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. He had lost the joy necessary for writing comedy but not his witty nature. “My wallpaper and I are in a duel to the death” he said during one of his last outings. “One of us has got to go.” On November 30, at age 46, Oscar went, leaving behind the hideous wallpaper, one or two faithful friends, some brilliant work and two boys who no longer carried his name. People who love laughter have mourned him ever since.
Several biographies of Wilde dwell on the salacious parts of his life, and a few focus on his Irish background. Ellmann included those as well as the disciplined artist whose work was the result of toil as well as talent and the gentle human being who could forgive almost any slight to himself. Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde scooped a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award and is considered the definitive biography. It’s a shame the biographer did not live long enough to enjoy the praise this book received.
Ellman’s biography and it’s subject are like a summer itself: warm, generous, and gone too soon. Still, we can be grateful for their gifts of warmth and, in winter, dream of sun on green leaves.